Sacha Baron Cohen strikes again

The ‘Borat’ lawsuits went nowhere. Expect fresh humiliations with the upcoming ‘Brüno.’

Sacha Baron Cohen strikes againHow many different ways are there to annoy people with a silly accent? That’s a question that will soon be answered by Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles, the star and director who gave us Borat and now return with Brüno, the story of a gay, Euro-trashy Austrian fashion expert. Brüno is a character Cohen developed along with Borat on Da Ali G Show; the movie, to be released on July 10, will follow the same format as Borat, a series of loosely connected segments in which Cohen embarrasses real people with his idiotic questions and behaviour. Cohen has found out the hard way that this is the only way he can make a successful movie; in 2002, when he transferred his most popular character to a scripted film, Ali G Indahouse, the result was a financial flop. There’s only one thing his fans want to see him doing: making real people squirm.

Cohen will do anything to get to those uncomfortable moments, like the scenes in Brüno where (in a parody of Madonna and Angelina’s baby-collecting) he adopts an African baby and, in front of shocked onlookers, names him “O.J.” If he risks a lawsuit, that’s just part of what he does. One of the big stories about Borat was that Cohen and the producers were sued all over the U.S. by people who didn’t realize that the movie would portray them negatively. Some plaintiffs claimed they had been defamed; others argued that Cohen had invaded their privacy by putting them on film. The most-publicized challenge came from three frat boys in South Carolina who were paid $200 apiece to appear in the movie and say a few words—which turned out to include comments like “it would be a better country if we had slaves.” One of them told ABC News that the producers “told us a lie” by suggesting that Borat was a real person and that this was a documentary for his native country of Kazakhstan. By the time they knew it wasn’t true, the film was in theatres and everyone was laughing at them.

Though Cohen made these people angry, he doesn’t seem to have much to fear from them in court: almost every one of the Borat suits has been tossed out. Some of the people who appeared in the film signed release forms (that promised, accurately if evasively, that it was a “documentary-style” movie). Other people, like the guy who ran away from Borat screaming “Go away! What are you doing!” didn’t give permission, but judges ruled that Cohen’s fiction is protected by the same laws that apply to news programs and real documentaries. Cohen went into Brüno knowing that as long as he’s embarrassing these people to make a satirical point, he’s in the clear.

But what satirical point is he making? Charles may think the real subject is American narrow-mindedness; in between Borat and Brüno, he directed Bill Maher’s Religulous, a real documentary that used Borat-like techniques to demonstrate the silliness of religious belief. Charles told that both Borat and Maher are “enquiring amongst people about their belief systems, about their values, and hopefully painting a portrait of a society in the process.” Brüno will follow this pattern by posing racially or sexually loaded questions to people Charles wants to target; one scene from the trailer has Brüno embarrassing a bunch of rednecks by questioning their masculinity.

Which almost confirms what the lawsuits said: Cohen wants to humiliate people. A new documentary, Carmen Meets Borat, makes that clear by telling the story of a Romanian village that was tricked into portraying Borat’s prostitute-filled hometown (and launched another fruitless lawsuit). From that point of view, Cohen is just hitting easy targets. But unlike Religulous or Michael Moore’s movies, where the interviewer is portrayed as a smug hero, Cohen’s mockumentaries have something for both sides: if you don’t want to laugh at poor people, you can laugh at the idiotic, bigoted foreigners Cohen plays.

In any event, Cohen has bigger things to worry about than the broader point of his movies; he has to think about what to cut. The Motion Picture Association of America ratings board gave an NC-17 rating to the first cut of Brüno; Cohen and Charles will have to delete some of the explicit footage to get the R rating big theatre chains demand. Hopefully that won’t affect the segment with former presidential candidate Ron Paul, who said that he “was expecting an interview on Austrian economics,” but left the room when Brüno “started pulling his pants down.” That’s just what Cohen’s fans want: angry reactions from people who aren’t in on the joke.

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